The most important takeaway from the Bulls’ preseason loss to the Milwaukee Bucks wasn’t the point guard competition. It wasn’t Daniel Gafford’s energy. It wasn’t Denzel Valentine looking healthy and comfortable from beyond the arc. It wasn’t a defense that dearly misses Wendell Carter Jr.
It was the team’s shot distribution.
Before diving in, the obvious caveat here is that Monday’s shot attempts are a one-game sample size, and the location of shots came in a home loss to Milwaukee’s B-Team. But in an era of unparalleled offensive analytics, there’s a glimmer of hope that the Bulls are hopping aboard the analytics train and riding it into a more efficient offense.
The Bulls attempted 98 shots on Monday. Of those, 40 came in the restricted area and 38 were 3-pointers. That’s nearly 80% of their attempts coming from the most efficient spots on the floor, and that percentage would have been higher had it not been for their 38 free-throw attempts (another sign of positive efficiency).
The end result of those looks was just eight midrange (MR) attempts in a game played at 112 possessions. Of those attempts, the only make came midway through the first quarter when Otto Porter took a step inside the 3-point line and buried a jumper over center Brook Lopez, who was on his heels and giving the Bulls’ swingman plenty of space to shoot.
Those eight attempts were an excellent sign for a Bulls team that took far too many MR attempts last season at an ugly clip; in 2019, the Bulls ranked 12th in MR attempts (14.5 per game) and shot just 37.1% on those looks, the third worst mark in the league behind Atlanta and Miami.
Zach LaVine and Otto Porter played just a combined 39 minutes, but they took just one midrage jumper between the two of them. Last year Porter averaged 4.6 midrange attempts per game, while LaVine averaged 3.2 per game.
Certainly Jim Boylen deserves credit for practicing what he preached in the offseason, that the Bulls would run more and attempt more 3-pointers. But he deserves equal praise for his offseason hires, employing former Brooklyn Nets assistant Chris Fleming and former Rockets assistant Roy Rogers.
It’s no coincidence that those two teams ranked last (Houston; 4.8) and third-to-last (Brooklyn; 8.2) in midrange attempts per game last season. In fact, Houston and Brooklyn ranked last and second-to-last in midrange attempts in 2017 and 2018, too. (Ironically enough, Houston and Brooklyn are also ranked last and second-to-last in midrange attempts very early in the 2020 preseason.)
Those principles and offensive philosophies are carrying over to a Bulls roster that’s loaded with above-average 3-point shooters and some of the game’s best players around the rim.
"We hope it's sustainable," Boylen said Tuesday at the Advocate Center. "It might not be 38 (3-point attempts) and 38 (free throw attempts) every night. Historically, there are more fouls in preseason games. So I don't want to overreact to it. It is nice when your team does some of the things that you emphasize. Getting downhill, getting to the free-throw line has been an emphasis.
"Getting more 3s, getting good 3s---the way we charted it, we had eight wide-open 3s we missed. I think we had games last year where we took eight. That was a joke.
"We got a lot of work to do, but it is nice when some of the things you emphasize come to fruition. And we're going to keep emphasizing them."
And while the sample-size snobs will come out in droves for analyzing one preseason game in which the Bulls’ core players didn’t play their full allotment of minutes – and Wendell Carter and Luke Kornet, two expected rotation players, were out – the Bulls were already trending in the right direction last season. Consider the Bulls’ midrange attempts per game by month under Boylen:
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the Bulls also averaged more shot attempts in the restricted area each month under Boylen. They went from 28.1 RA attempts per game in December all the way to 36.6 attempts per game in April. In the 17-game span with a healthy Otto Porter on the roster (he played in 15 of them), the Bulls averaged 13.1 MR attempts (15th fewest) and 31.1 RA attempts (12th most).
There’s a misconception that midrange shots are bad shots. That isn’t the case. There’s a time and place for them. The Golden State Warriors’ juggernaut offense ranked second in midrange attempts per game last season. Last year, five of the top six teams in midrange attempts per game made the postseason, and eight of the top 10 teams in midrange field goal percentage qualified for the postseason.
Midrange success is a result of being elite in the other two areas (at the rim and from beyond the arc). Teams either pack the paint to defend against drives to the rim or over-defend on 3-point attempts, allowing space in the midrange for open looks.
Consider Porter’s jumper over Lopez. It was a clear mismatch on a switch, and the Bucks center knew it. He gave Porter space to step into a one-dribble jumper that, despite being a midrange shot, was a high percentage look for one of the best shooters in basketball.
There were bad looks, too. Lauri Markkanen took a contested baseline fadeaway jumper, and Coby White took two errant jumpers early in the shot clock that probably shouldn’t have been taken. Over the course of a 48-minute game, those will happen. But the Bulls appeared to make a concerted effort to minimize them by attacking the rim, moving the ball on the perimeter and finding open 3-point shooters.
It’s something to watch as the preseason progresses, and especially once players like Carter (elite around the rim) and Kornet (one of those above-average marksmen) are back in the fold. It was just one preseason game, but it was a promising one in terms of shot distribution.